On a Sunday afternoon a week before Christmas, Northgate Mall is a mosh pit of shoppers.
It’s a familiar scene. Our cheerful, if harried, consumerism is as much a holiday ritual as any traditional meal or family gathering.
But by the Victoria’s Secret, between the kiosk advertising the new Fiat and the one selling massaging recliners, is a life-size cardboard goat.
“If you could have the best gift ever, what would it be?” asks Kelly Hopkins to distracted passers-by. “In countries where people wake up without clean water, nutritious food, health care or education or business opportunities, a goat can be a really good gift!”
Buying a goat or a cow for a poor family for the holidays isn’t a new idea (Heifer International is perhaps the most well-known organization that does this); neither is sponsoring a child or donating to a water project.
But this year World Vision, the Christian humanitarian organization based in Federal Way has upped its game. Instead of an ad on TV or an envelope in the mail, it has headed straight for the capitalist heart of America: the shopping mall.
Seattle is one pilot city, with kiosks at Northgate and Southcenter. The experiment is also running in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta.
Kelly and her fellow World Vision canvassers are taking advantage of peak holiday shopping season. They’re here every day, all day (even during extended holiday hours).
Stopping shoppers at the height of consumptive frenzy to remind them about global poverty might sound as futile as passing out feminist literature at a strip club.
But Hopkins says it’s exactly the right time and place.
“They’ve got time and money to spend. And people are like ‘We’re tired of stuff … I don’t know what to get Mom or Dad or brother or sister,'” she says. “[But] we’re here to give people the opportunity to redirect their funds into something that someone actually has desperate need for.”
Some consumers are already queasy in the face of recent tragedies like the garment factory fire in Banglades that killed 112 people. The factory produced for popular retailers like Wal-Mart and Sears.
“The Bangladesh fire was such a shocking, horrific event that I think that people are thinking more about where their products are coming from,” says Morgan Currier of United Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Washington.
Currier says she sees a renewed interest in conscientious consumption and thinks the holiday season is a good opportunity to shop ethically. Her number one tip for doing so is “don’t shop at Wal-Mart, just don’t go there.” (For a more comprehensive resource you might check out the National Green Pages, a directory of conscientious retailers).
Whether people are “tired of stuff” as Hopkins believes, looking for ethical alternatives as Currier hopes, or just feel more generous this time of year, something is working.
World Vision reports that the Northgate campaign alone has raised over $29,000 since it began in September. An amount Cheryl DeBruler, Marking Operations Specialist, calls a “huge success” for a new campaign.
Hopkins measures that success in a string of colorful plastic beads dangling from a corner of the kiosk. Each bead represents a newly sponsored child who will receive a monthly donation to help secure food, water, education and health care for the next year.
But it’s tough work to secure those beads.
Despite her high-energy attempts, many people don’t hear her over the low roar of shopping. Others hurry past offering a guilty smile or muttered excuse.
Behind her is a large photo featuring smiling Kenyan children in blue school uniforms posing on a dirt road. They have access to clean water because of a World Vision project.
I find myself wondering if I would stop. My own bags are stuffed with things my family doesn’t need, things produced under circumstances I know nothing about. I avoid doing the math on how many child sponsorships my morning’s shopping might cover.
Just as I’m about to walk away, Hopkins catches the eye of a man with a graying goatee and leather jacket. She smiles big. His name is Ray.
“What’s your ideal gift?” I hear her ask as I gather my shopping bags, “Have you thought about a cow?”